'An headlesse Ladie' and 'a horses loade of heades': Writing the Beheading

P. Palmer

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The savagery of the native Irish and, in particular, their predilection for severing heads, is repeatedly asserted, not only in the texts of conquest, but in representations of the "Wild Irish" on the Elizabethan and Jacobean stage. This essay tests this literary commonplace against the historical record of the early modern conquest of Ireland. Far from being merely the aberrant practice of the barbarous Gaels, beheading — and a form of judicial headhunting — became a cornerstone of the conquerors' policy of martial law. As atrocity was redefined as justice, so, in the hands of writers such as Spenser, Churchyard, and Derricke, was it aestheticized. But even as such writers wove inventive beheadings into their texts, Irish poets were elegizing the severed heads of patrons killed by the English. The poetry of beheading became a site of cultural confrontation and of unexpected assertions of humanity.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)25-57
Number of pages32
JournalRenaissance Quarterly
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - 2007

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